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Why Johnny Carson Stopped Speaking to Former Friend Joan Rivers

"He hung up on me—and never, ever spoke to me again."

As an up-and-coming comedian in the mid-'60s, Joan Rivers got her big break on The Tonight Show. At the time, the late-night talk show was hosted by Johnny Carson, and over the years, Rivers became a regular guest and eventually Carson's permanent guest host whenever he was unavailable. But, despite having grown close in that time, Carson and Rivers had a falling out in the '80s that led to him refusing to speak to her and to Rivers being banned from The Tonight Show. She didn't return to the talk show until 2014—nearly 50 years after she first sat down with Carson.

Years later, Rivers revealed the reason why she believed Carson ended their friendship so abruptly. Read on to find out more.

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Rivers had a long history with The Tonight Show.

In 2012, Rivers wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter about her career as a comedian and the discrimination she faced as a woman in comedy. She talked about being the last of her group of comedians to be asked to try out for The Tonight Show.

"I was brought up seven times to the Carson show—interviewed and auditioned seven times by seven different people, and they rejected me, each time, over a period of three years," she wrote.

Eventually, when another comedian flopped, she was finally brought on. "[T]hey didn't bring me on as a stand-up comic," Rivers wrote. "They brought me on as a funny girl writer. I'm the only stand-up that never did a stand-up routine on the Carson show."

She added of the host, "Carson, give him credit, said on air in 1965, 'You're gonna be a star.' Right smack on the air."

Rivers then began appearing on the show regularly and became Carson's permanent guest host in the early '80s.

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She landed her own show.

Joan Rivers on the set of "The Tonight Show" circa 1985
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

In 1986, Rivers was offered her own show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on Fox. (It ended up lasting less than a year.) This, she wrote, is what created the rift between her and Carson.

"I adored Johnny. In the '70s, I did opening monologues, I was hosting. The turning point was when I left the show. Everybody left the show to go to do their own shows. Bill Cosby. David Brenner. George Carlin. Everybody. I stuck around for 18 years. And they finally offered me my own late-night show," she wrote for THR.

Carson was the first person she called to share the news, but, Rivers added, "[H]e hung up on me—and never, ever spoke to me again." She continued, "And then denied that I called him. I couldn't figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He wouldn't talk to me. I kept saying, 'I don't understand, why is he mad?' He was not angry at anybody else."

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She believed sexism played a role.

Johnny Carson hosting "The Tonight Show" circa 1975
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Rivers concluded that Carson held her to a different standard when she got her own show, because she was a woman.

"I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn't leave him," she wrote in her essay. "I know this sounds very warped. But I don't understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, 'I found you, and you're my property.' He didn't like that as a woman, I went up against him."

She also couldn't understand why Carson denied that she called him. "To this day, I'm very angry about that," she said. "Don't [expletive] lie. You're making, what, $300 million a year? What are you talking about? And I was going on Fox. Fox didn't even have call letters at that point. Fox wasn't Fox. Fox was six stupid little stations."

"Looking back, and I never like to say it, the Carson breakup hurt me a lot, without realizing it," the comedian added.

She wasn't welcomed back to The Tonight Show for years.

Joan Rivers on "The Tonight Show" in 2014
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon / YouTube

Rivers claimed that Carson banned her from The Tonight Show. As reported by PBS, she once said, "The first person I called was Johnny Carson. He slammed the phone down, I called again, he slammed it down again, and never spoke to me again. Ever. I think he was furious and felt betrayed. I was now a competitor. He literally had me blacklisted and to this day, I have not been on NBC late night ever."

Rivers finally returned to The Tonight Show in 2014 when Jimmy Fallon took over as host. Previous host Jay Leno never had Rivers on the show during his 20 years on the job—including after Carson's 2005 death—nor did Conan O'Brien, though he only hosted the show very briefly.

As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, Rivers made a cameo on the premiere episode, which was on Feb. 17, 2014—exactly 49 years after her Feb. 17, 1965 debut on the show. She said in a statement, "It's about time! I've been sitting in a taxi outside NBC with the meter running since 1987."

Then, in March 2014, Rivers was a guest and touched on the ban briefly after Fallon showed an old photo of her with Carson. "I was banned for 26 years," she said. Rivers died six months later at the age of 81.

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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